By Andrew C. Marshall

When you hear the term “social network,” your mind probably jumps first to social media websites like Facebook. Or, if you’re more cinematically inclined, you think of the eponymous, supposedly factual movie starring Jesse Eisenberg. Yet surprisingly, the term “social network” has been in use for roughly a century, and it refers to complicated groups of relationships between people in social systems of all sizes, ranging from interpersonal to international. As you can see, Facebook is merely one type of social network.

In terms of business, an organization might have some sort of formal organization chart — the design of which is often in the shape of a tree or pyramid — but the real social network lies in the hidden group of connections that enables a company’s people to be successful.

A social network analysis, then, is the systemic evaluation of the network of informal relationships across an organization. A social network analysis maps the path of communication via phone and email. It also employs survey tools to identify the direct relationships that people rely on for their success, while also pinning down personal connections to the organization and even workplace happiness. These results are conveniently fed into mapping software that enables the social network to be visually depicted — rather like a spider’s web — for further analysis and practical use, especially when it comes to innovation.   

Social Pinpointing and Corporate Superheroes

A social network analysis can highlight all sorts of covert company elements: positive, negative, and in between. Here are some of the things an analysis can identify:

  • Communication breakdowns. Obviously, if an analysis tracks the flow of communication, then it will also show lagging or lacking communication in the organization. Such breakdowns might hinder the implementation of the enterprise strategy. 
  • Talent. A social network analysis can identify hidden pools of talent, which can then be fostered in an effort to improve the performance of management and leadership development practices.
  • Products and services. By conducting a social network analysis that bridges internal relationships with client relationships, corporate-client connectivity and the effectiveness of the sales force can be directly addressed.
  • Collaboration. By discovering the people who are subject matter experts, a social network analysis can make it easier to enhance cross-organization collaboration, as well as best-practice transfer.

A social network analysis can also identify specific people and the roles they play in innovation. The roles read like a corporate superhero casting list:

  • The fixer seeks the opportunity to innovate and create new solutions for unmet needs.
  • The disruptor is dissatisfied with the status quo and is willing to test and develop new approaches, even if it means temporary failure.
  • The advocate understands the need to promote and support a new idea until it is widely adopted and capable of standing on its own merits.
  • The stoker drives the team’s efforts and has the will to complete activities, even in the face of steep odds.
  • The orienteer knows how to assess, analyze, and navigate the social network in order to achieve the organization’s strategic intent.

Of course, these roles exist over and above each of the identified people’s functional responsibilities. Consider them an overlay on the life of the organization.

Innovation Through Reliance on Social Structures

In most organizations, everyone knows how work gets done. True to the social network, it’s more often who you know, rather than what you know, that really matters. Business leaders say that they recognize the social network as valuable in their day-to-day operations, as well as in the execution of the company’s intent. However, few really spend any time trying to understand the importance and the power of the network of relationships that exist across the enterprise, and this is where success lies.

Now, when it comes down to innovation, major change can be downright risky — even in the best of circumstances. When it is introduced into inherently stable systems, the existing social structures (represented by the formal organization structure and directly supporting a “business-as-usual” mentality) will often work to expel or limit that change, not unlike how the immune system might reject a foreign pathogen.

This is where a social network analysis comes into play: It provides a path for introducing change that does not rely on the existing formal structure, but rather on the strength of relationships (i.e., the real structure of an organization) by which most of the significant work is actually accomplished. By playing to the strength of those relationships, social network analysis helps innovation to be more successfully introduced, fostered, and sustained.  

It cannot be stressed enough how crucial social network analysis is for effectively introducing large-scale change. If nothing else, besides the “corporate superheroes” previously mentioned, it highlights two groups of people who are integral to implementing innovation:

  1. Connectors: People who keep their networks informed.
  2. Influencers: People who can sway the behavior of others with their interactions.

Knowing whose ear to put a bug in undoubtedly makes any enterprise transition easier.

Map Networks to Avoid Silos

Naturally, if you plan on introducing something innovative to your organization, it would be a good idea to do a social network analysis to facilitate the change. However, sometimes specific problems arise in a company that a social network analysis can help resolve.
Due to the need for managers to meet performance goals and ensure business as usual, collaboration often breaks down between functional areas. Each unit focuses on its own goals and can lose sight of subject matter expertise found in other parts of the organization. This can lead to the development of departmental “silos” and organizational subcultures going to “war” with each other by hoarding resources, ignoring requests for support, and so on. Naturally, this undermines the innovation of the whole enterprise. To reboot innovation efforts, a social network analysis could be just what the doctor ordered.

At a leadership level, excessive overhead and cost structures are caused by the inability of leaders to recognize and leverage relevant internal and external expertise to further strategic goals. Unless this is addressed, it can lead to cost overruns, missed market opportunities, and a never-ending game of catch-up. In this case, a social network analysis would show where the expertise lies and how it connects across the organization.

Finally, sometimes the tyranny of past success can impede future growth and change. In some cases, those who led the company to marketplace success rise to become leaders, and they develop a sense of stubborn infallibility on the way up. In an attempt to recreate past glories, they exclusively revisit past behaviors, thereby stifling new and innovative voices before they have a chance to even be explored. A social network analysis makes sure that all voices are identified — no matter how small.

There’s nothing that says you can’t do a social network analysis if everything in an organization is apparently smooth sailing. In fact, it’s generally a good idea. But it’s important to recognize that these three problems definitely warrant an analysis if an organization is to have success.   

A social network analysis really can open up the path to innovation by uncluttering some of the unknown elements. Its utility is definitely catching on. Even famed sociology guru Malcolm Gladwell lauds social network analyses in “The Tipping Point,” especially emphasizing the word-of-mouth phenomenon. At the very least, mapping your organization’s social network will give you additional knowledge of your company, and knowledge, in itself, is power. 

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